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Ritual Art

By using the noun “ritual” as an adjective, we may point to a particular subset of the general category of art: ritual art is art used for ritual purposes. A second perspective on “ritual art” emphasizes the role of ritual in the very production of the object or artifact that we might otherwise extract from its ritual context to imagine as a distinct and separate “work of art.” Rather than being made or adopted for ritual use, the work’s ontological status and efficacy is intimately associated with its ritualized production and use. Each of these considerations is relevant in thinking about the relationship between ritual art and the Bible.

Bible as Source and Product.

The Bible is both a source and a product of art and ritual. As source, the Bible has been a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration informing the visual, plastic, musical, dramatic, literary, and cinematic arts; much of this art has been intended for use in worship. Indeed, until the modern era, art was largely coincident with ritual. The practice and development of ritual in Judaism and Christianity is indebted to biblical books, which provide prototypical gestures and acts that serve as sources for liturgical traditions.

The Bible is also a source for a complex set of beliefs and attitudes about ritual and art. The Bible includes descriptive and prescriptive ritual texts, but also proscriptive, critical reflection on the social and moral value of ritual. Noah’s offering of burnt flesh is “pleasing” to the Lord (Gen 8:21), but Micah (6:6–8) doubts that the Lord truly receives much satisfaction from the sacrifice of animals. Amos, after denouncing feasts and sacrifice, takes aim at the “noise” of song and the “melody” of harps (5:23); Paul uses this suspicion of music as a metaphor in critiquing perceived inadequacies in forms of religious life (1 Cor 13:1). Over the centuries, these and many other passages have made the Bible a double-edged sword for ritual art.

That the Bible is a source for ritual art is obvious, but it is also a product of ritual. Biblical texts use metaphors drawn from the ritual field in articulating narrative, beliefs, and values; John’s description of Jesus as the “lamb of God,” which draws on sacrificial rites, a staple of religion in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, is but one of dozens of examples. Some passages in the Bible derive from their liturgical use, as in the case of the Christological hymns found in Philippians 2:6–11 and Colossians 1:15–20 (DeMaris, 2008, p. 6). The preeminence of the Bible in Western culture is coincident with a privileging of the word, and ritual is often conceived as being derivative of theological ideas or moral principles; a secularized version of this textual emphasis is found in ritual theory itself, when ritual is imagined as enacted myth. In tracking cultural developments, we cannot assume art and ritual are always derivative of textual traditions.


Music, song, and dance, the constituent elements in many ritual traditions, are not central biblical concerns. The few mentions in the Hebrew Bible of such arts associate them with popular festivals, the celebration of military victories, and laments and tributes to ancestral heroes (1 Sam 18:6; Judg 21:19–23; 2 Sam 1:17–27). King David danced before the Lord, and his poetic spirit is behind many of the psalms attributed to him by tradition; but David is an ambivalent character, and his artistic energies are part of what makes him so. Occasionally, dance and music are associated with prophecy, as when Saul encounters a company of prophets playing a variety of musical instruments (1 Sam 10:5). The Lord instructs Moses to craft two silver trumpets for use in the tabernacle (Num 10:1), and tradition holds that these instruments were later transferred to the Jerusalem Temple.

Jewish scripture and Talmudic literature record the use of art in the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple was lined with cedar columns, into which were carved geometric designs and a figurative art similar to Canaanite culture; curtains embroidered with designs of cherubim and flowers, in blue, purple, and scarlet thread were used to shroud the holy of holies (Exod 26:1). Temple worship in Jerusalem included music—cymbals, gongs, wind instruments, and harps—along with a regularized choir and conductor, with formal guilds supplying the musical expertise. As there was no musical notation, we have little or no idea how Temple music sounded, nor is there much literary evidence from which we can deduce how Temple worship, centered on sacrifice, was experienced. Unlike bones or the walls of ancient city, ritual—as with music, play, and spoken language—does not fossilize or leave physical residues.

Judaism has largely avoided producing ritual art, just as it has avoided liturgical music and dance, and the biblical inheritance is at least partly responsible for this state of affairs. In the emergence of ancient Israel, attitudes toward ritual art distinguish it from surrounding civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. Certainly Judaism has not produced the kind and variety of representational art that has been integral to Christian tradition. The development of Jewish ritual art after 600 C.E. was curtailed with the rise of an aniconic Islam and the history of prejudice and persecution of Jews in Christian lands, but theological influences are also at work.


The proscription of “graven images” and the admonitions against idolatry, against bowing down before or serving images or statuary (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8), are both source and justification for bouts of iconoclasm and critical suspicion of ritual in Jewish and Christian history. A significant thematic motif of the Hebrew Bible is a struggle against idolatry; the outrage of Moses over his people’s production of the golden calf is the best-known example (Exod 32). It is less well known that Moses—at the instruction of the Lord, no less—crafts a golden serpent as a magical cure against poisonous serpents, and his people come to worship this object; eventually, King Hezekiah puts an end to the serpent cult as part of a general cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple (Num 21:8; 1 Kgs 18:4). The prophets are severely critical of ritual in principle. For Amos, God hates and despises feasts, and “takes no delight in solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21); here, ritual itself becomes a kind of graven image or idol.

Hebrew scripture bequeathed to the Jewish and Christian tradition the thorny question: What, precisely, makes a ritual image “graven”? Is it the content of the image, or its form, or the spirit or eye of the beholder? Rabbinic Judaism generally interpreted the second commandment as proscribing images of people, deities, angels, and astronomical bodies; sculpture, which is explicitly mentioned in Exodus, was a particular cause for concern. Yet there are sources in the Rabbinic writings that stress the importance of the individual’s response to and conception of images, not the images themselves. In the Mishnah we find a conversation between Rabban Gamliel and a pagan intellectual, set in the first-century resident port city of Akko. In response to queries about bathing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse, Gamliel makes a distinction between a bathhouse for Aphrodite and Aphrodite as an adornment for the bath, concluding that “what is treated as a god is forbidden; what is not treated as a god is permitted.” Here, idolatry, which is always a charge one individual or group makes against another, involves peering into the soul of the other and deciding just how the ritual image is being “treated.”

The struggle against idolatry in Hebrew scripture is perhaps best conceived as a tension between God’s transcendence and the need to create sensible images in the act of worship. Being sensuous creatures, our ideas, beliefs, and values, if they are to possess substance and efficacy, require a certain materiality. If the more abstract truths and conceptions of religion are to live in the everyday lives of people, there is need for ritual, image, objects, and story. God himself introduces the tension between the abstract and the concrete; it his desire for an image that sets in motion the human-divine drama (Gen 1:26–27). A few chapters after the proscription of  “graven images,” Moses descends Sinai with God’s instructions for the construction of the Ark of Testimony and the tabernacle, each replete with images, both decorative and representational. We read how Bez’alel, the most renowned artist of his people, is elected by God and “filled with the Spirit of God”—a spirit that includes intelligence but also “craftsmanship”—to create the sanctuary and its vessels (Exod 31:3). Ritual art is permitted, even nourished, but not “graven” art.

The theology of incarnation supplies Christianity with a kind of escape clause releasing the church from overanxious concern with the second commandment. In the history of Christianity, however, there have been tensions and debates over images, at times erupting into full-blown destructive iconoclasm. Biblically inspired worries over idolatry are always close at hand in assessing the merits of ritual art.

Synagogue Art.

Judaism has long been understood as an aniconic religion, but this view was challenged following discoveries and excavations made in the 1920s and 1930s, which unearthed numerous synagogues dating from late antiquity replete with both geometric and figurative art. Erwin Goodenough’s work in the 1950s revealed that ritual art is not at all foreign to Judaism; following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. there was a flowering of ritual art and symbolism in synagogues and funerary practices, which lasted several centuries. Synagogues were functioning before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., and the forms of worship practiced there differed considerably from temple liturgy. Rather than being centered on sacrifice, the synagogue liturgy was rooted in prayer and the reading of scripture and was led largely by the laity rather than priests.

Ritual can be classified according to various moods—festive, ceremonial, solemn, triumphant—and the arts are instrumental in the production of such moods. Following the Diaspora in 70 C.E., Rabbinic authorities banned both secular and sacred music, partly to encourage an ethos and spirit of mourning over the loss of the Temple and national identity. The shift in emphasis to prayer and the reading of scripture led to the development of chant and the position of cantor, who would voice or sing the liturgy before the congregation.

The synagogues of late antiquity include not only geometric and floral art but zodiacal signs and representational floor mosaics. These mosaics depict liturgical instruments and objects, such as the shofar, the ark, and scrolls, and take as their subject biblical scenes and figures; Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac is a common motif. In addition to synagogue art, discoveries from the same period reveal that Jewish sarcophagi were richly illustrated with both symbols and representational images. The Dura Europos synagogue in eastern Syria, discovered in 1932, is unique in terms of the quality and commitment to representational art; moreover, this synagogue contains an astonishing collection of wall frescoes (rather than the standard floor mosaics), detailing some 50 or 60 biblical stories. Among the images is the depiction of a figure that most scholars identify as a fusion of David and Orpheus, playing the lyre; another scene associates the infancy narrative of Moses with the goddess Aphrodite. The discovery of these sites and artifacts reveal that post–Second Temple Jewish communities were heavily invested in biblically derived representational art and a willingness to develop syncretic subjects; these and other discoveries, such as the existence of Jewish medieval illustrated manuscripts, gave birth to the modern study of Jewish art, a riveting and at times contentious discussion over the role of iconography in Jewish synagogue liturgy and funerary rites (Fine, 2005).

For many years, synagogue art was interpreted as an aberration from a “normative” Judaism, a relapse to a pagan love of images, under the pressures experienced by Diaspora communities to adapt to Hellenistic culture. Goodenough (1992) argues, however, that synagogue and funerary art points to the existence of a widespread, nonrabbinic form of Judaism. The interpretive debate over the meaning and significance of synagogue art continues; Annabel Wharton, contra Goodenough, suggests the art of Dura Europos is a form of visual Midrash, with much in common with Rabbinic tradition. In spite of these interpretive tensions, as the evidence continues to be digested, there is a growing recognition that the “image of an aniconic and opaque faith represents nothing more than a superficial and unreal view of what must have been a very widespread and profound use of religious symbols by ancient Jewry” (Neusner, 1975, p. 154). To call the production and use of ritual art in these communities aberrant or deviant in relation to a more normative or authentic Judaism seems more of a theological than a historical conclusion.

Ritual Art

Fresco of Moses with the goddess Aphrodite from the Dura Europos synagogue (second century).

Photo © Zev Radovan/Bridgeman Images

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As with the Jerusalem Temple, the context informing synagogue art of late antiquity is largely unavailable to us. There is debate over whether mosaics and frescoes are parts of a unified whole and the extent to which they reveal a Hellenizing of Judaism. The menorah, for example, is ubiquitous in synagogue art, but “the most that can be said is that at any one time and in any specific context the menorah’s significance was undoubtedly multifaceted” (Levine, 2000, p. 604). What we can minimally conclude is that synagogue art stimulated historical memory, identified and increased the symbolic value of particular ritual objects (such as the menorah, shofar, and, especially, the Torah), and illustrated and reinforced the reading of scripture as the centerpiece of liturgy.

Excavations have also revealed that some art in these ancient synagogues was deliberately defaced, beginning in the early seventh century. Whether this outbreak of iconoclasm was inspired by Rabbinic desires to enforce biblical prohibitions, by a response to the rise of an aniconic Islam, or by Muslims themselves is debated. From the seventh century onward, the use of the arts in synagogue worship declined in the face of effective bans. Music and art would not return to Jewish worship until the Reform movement in nineteenth-century Germany, which, modeling itself on practices in Lutheran churches, introduced the organ, congregational singing, and figurative art. Modern Orthodox Judaism retains a ban on musical instrumentation and figurative art.


Christian art is pervasive, having a near universal presence in ecclesiastical, public, and private spaces. Christian ritual art spans the full range of media and forms: painting, sculpture, music, and drama have been fully integrated into the liturgical life of church at various places and times. In the twentieth century, film has come to have a place in the ritual life of some churches. There exists, of course, variation across Christian traditions. Byzantine Christianity, renowned for iconographic art, forbade sculpture, while the Roman West embraced it. Calvinists rejected music in church, while Luther praised music’s gifts. The medieval liturgy was highly dramatized, and the Western church fully embraced the performance of passion plays, while in the post-Reformation period, Lutheran Pietists in Germany and Puritans in England shut down theaters.

Christian art is present from the beginning of the tradition, playing a prominent role in catacombs and private house-churches, two early locales of liturgical action. In these early communities, images of Jesus as the good shepherd and healer, the annunciation, and the breaking of bread at the Last Supper are prominent motifs, creating in the liturgy an ethos of deliverance, care, and hospitality. The Last Supper is presented in the Synoptic Gospels and Paul, but it is also found in catacomb and house-church art, and the sharing of a simple, communal meal was the basis of the earliest Christian liturgy. There is good reason to link this Gospel scene to the Passover seder, a connection explicitly made in Mark. Is the Last Supper (as a historical or narrative event) a “product” or a “source” of art and ritual?

Over time, Christian tradition worked out a formal, confident position on the nature and function of liturgical art, allowing it to take deep root in Christian culture. Art was able to flourish in part because of the elevation and spiritualization of matter through the theology of the incarnation. The thought of John of Damascus helped navigate the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine world, a reticence led largely by imperial authorities reacting to the military and political successes of an aniconic Islam. But there was also an internal theological and liturgical dimension to the controversy. John quelled the fears of idolatry associated with the prominence of images in Christian worship, teasing out and developing the theology of the logos implicit in the Gospel of John: “I do not worship matter. I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter, and who through matter wrought my salvation” (1980, p. 23). For John, the person of the Son abolished the second commandment, since God had become visible and thus representable. John was careful, however, to distinguish between adoration, which is reserved for the Holy Trinity alone, and veneration, which is accorded the saints, as well as holy objects, such as the altar and the Gospels. John articulated for Christianity its own version of the uneasiness over images inherent in Jewish tradition.


The Byzantine icon tradition had two key sources: Egyptian funerary art and the imperial iconography that displayed Roman emperors in all their magisterial glory and power. Christian icons thus fused two domains: the world of the (resurrected) dead with the majesty of this-worldly life and rule. The funerary art of pre-Christian Egypt was not the ideological art of the pharaohs but a practice of painting the faces of deceased loved ones. The images are full frontal portraits. The large eyes and the immediacy of color and the gaze were neither naturalistic nor three-dimensional but nevertheless strike the viewer as an encounter with the person now gone; the art seems aimed at maintaining a connection with someone now absent, stirring memories and evoking an intimate, personal presence.

The Christian martyrs rejected pagan idolatry, but early Christianity readily made its early holy persons—Christ, Mary, the apostles and saints—present in congregational spaces and in more domestic portraits on small, portable tablets. From the fourth century on, Christian churches came to be filled with images of persons. In the Byzantine context, however, some of these images and were placed in prominent, special positions in churches, public locales, and private homes. This specialized treatment made these images particularly holy; they “broke ranks” and “received gestures of veneration: believers bowed deeply before them, kissed them, burnt lights and incense before them, even nailed votive objects to them, as tokens of their power” (Brown, 2013, p. 388). Images became the vehicle through which the individual and the community could approach beloved ancestors and otherwise invisible protectors. In this context emerged the icon tradition in the liturgy of the Eastern church.

Technically, the term “icon” is used by art historians and theologians to describe a painting of a sacred subject on a panel, produced and used in the context of liturgy or devotion. In the icon tradition, there is little distinction to be made between image and text. For early and medieval Christianity, the Gospel writer Luke is also said to have produced the first icon, an image of the Virgin, painted during the lifetime of Jesus; traditional language refers to the “writing” and “reading” of the icon, not its painting or viewing. In the Byzantine tradition, the icon bridges and unifies ritual and art. Far from a mere accessory to worship (or illustration or adornment), the icon is the necessary condition for the fullness and authenticity of worship (Collins, 2002, pp. 4–5). We might well distinguish between “ritual art” (art produced for use in ritual) and “ritual-art,” the fusion of ritual and art as a necessary unity. Such an approach emphasizes embodiment and enactment, art as an event; the icon is not simply a religious painting, but the meeting place of human and divine, a manifestation of the mysteries of Christ. Church buildings, such as the Hagia Sophia, built by Constantine in the fourth century, is itself considered as a kind of icon, a homologized form of the very structure of the cosmos, the place where the majesty, glory, and power of God is made manifest in the world.

Ritual Art

Interior of the Hagia Sophia constructed between 532 and 537 C.E.

Album/Art Resource, N.Y.

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Understanding the mutual engagement of art, place, and ritual action in the icon is a complex semiotic affair. The theology and much of the historical and aesthetic interpretation of the icon tradition point to the idea of theosis, deification or union with the divine. Entering a Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom, the name of many churches in Eastern Orthodoxy), participating in the liturgy, contemplating the presence of God in the icon—each of these entails the quality of allurement, of elevation, transcendence: music, gesture, choreography, painting, incense—in an era where urban environmental blight was common, entering a church to participate in the liturgy was a beautifully sensuous experience.


There exists a massive amount of biblically derived ritual art in Christianity. We can but point to a few key developments up to the time of the Reformation. Following the conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christian art fused with the imperial iconography of the Roman Empire. Imperial art contributed to the notion of the supreme rule of God. The motif of the emperor crowning a victor or receiving into his hands legal codes was visual representation of actual ceremonies involving the investiture of power. The figure of Christ sitting on the sphere of the world as cosmic emperor was shaped by the world of court ceremony. Similarly, depictions of saints in this adopted art have them dressed as dignitaries of the imperial court. The magisterial art of Byzantine Christianity was not merely borrowing the archetypal subject matter of the empire, replacing historical figures with biblical ones, but the ritual or ceremonial context of that art (Grabar, 1981, pp. 42–43).

In the Byzantine era, the locale of worship became converted basilicas (Roman public buildings), used for the celebration of the Eucharist meal, and baptisteries, constructed for the initiatory rite of baptism into the community. These ritual sites were richly decorated with art: portraiture and icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints and scenes depicting the baptism of Jesus and a garden of paradise associated with the new birth brought by baptism were typical. The baptismal and paradise motifs of the art of the domed baptisteries of late antiquity gave way to the early medieval churches, which were filled with rows of images of the community of saints providing the faithful with access to a treasury of merit and grace, linked to the establishment of penance as key component of medieval ritual life.

There are very few visual representations of the Crucifixion prior to the tenth century; and then, over the course of two centuries, the Crucifixion becomes the overwhelmingly dominant motif of Western Christian liturgical art. The Crucifixion, which nearly everyone in the West naturally assumes is the fundamental symbol of Christianity, has never played a central role in the art of eastern Christendom. The emergence of this new motif in art coincides with significant changes to liturgy and theology. Medieval crucifixion images, theologies of atonement, and a liturgy bathed in the atmosphere of sacrifice were the foundations of empire building, the militarization of Western Christendom, conversion by the sword, concerns with spiritual purity, and a mood characterized by fear of God’s punishing wrath. The new “liturgical prayers for Good Friday presented the tortured Jesus accusing humanity of killing him. These strategies sought to compel believers to submit to Christ the crucified judge and to keep their vows. The church threatened those who failed to do so with hell, which preachers described in frightening detail” (Brock and Parker, 2008, p. 258). The medieval Western church, compared with the domed baptisteries of the Byzantine world, was awash in fearful images of judgment, damnation, apocalypse, and suffering.

These changes to Latin medieval ritual art and liturgy were met with considerable resistance. Both the laity and the clergy raised objections to the crucifix and images of crucifixion on the grounds that they shifted the emphasis away from a form of Christianity rooted in discipleship and the ethos of apostolic poverty and service. One preacher in the south of France, Peter de Bruys, repudiated the sacraments and ceremony, advocated an ascetic lifestyle, burned crosses, and argued that the “cross, as an instrument of Christ’s death, should be condemned, rather than worshipped” (Brock and Parker, 2008, p. 259).

The Book as Icon.

As with a visual icon, the Bible as an object able to mediate spiritual and material worlds is fundamentally connected to its ritualized use and production. At the heart of the Jerusalem Temple was the holy of holies, shrouding not a figurative deity, which was common practice in surrounding pagan cultures, but the Ark of the Covenant, containing tablets or scrolls. In the tabernacle and Temple of ancient Israel, the book takes the functional place of the anthropomorphic deity. In many synagogues of late antiquity, the architectural and liturgical focal point was the Torah shrine or niche, which housed the various scrolls used by the community in worship; through orientation and decorative illustration, such book shrines took the place and served the functions of the absent Temple. Many of these synagogues also had a bema, a raised platform from which scripture was read to the congregation, a literal and metaphorical elevation of books and words.

In some ritual traditions, “the boundary between people and things can be extraordinarily fluid. Objects become subjects, and subjects, objects” (Grimes, 2013, p. 269). In Judaism and Christianity, the Bible possesses this dual quality of being both subject and object. The Rabbinic tradition likens the nourishing sweetness of reading scripture to a babe’s taste of mother’s milk. For Cassiodorus, the illustration of the Gospels was imagined in terms of dressing the book in clerical vestments; in the liturgy of St. Victor, the physical book was imagined and handled as a person, with the book assigned the task, for example, of awakening the monks for prayer (Illich, 1993, pp. 59–69). In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the book had long been associated with metaphors of destiny in the form of “the book of life” or a registry of debt, a heavenly census in which the scroll is an attribute or feature of an otherworldly magistrate. Moses carrying the tablets of the Law, an image produced in Hellenistic synagogues, also points to the scroll or book as an attribute of the sacred. After the fourth century, the image of Jesus handing over scrolls and books containing the word of God to apostles and saints became a common motif.

The process of making the text into a person is taken a step further in Christianity, where the book is not merely an attribute of the god but, in the language of John, God’s very flesh. Searching the art of pre-Christian Europe, we are unable to find any images of gods or deities with the book or scroll in their hands. It is with Christ, understood as the word (logos) and the one who reveals the book, that the book becomes liturgically revered (Illich, 1993, p. 122). One of the ritual uses of the Bible in medieval and monastic culture is as a devotional object in liturgical processions and altar display. The carrying of the gospel through liturgical space by deacon or priest was a means of constituting the space as sacred. The book was identified with the person of Christ, with the altar variously serving as tomb or throne, a process of metaphorically enacting Christ’s death and resurrection, with the book itself identified with the body. These processions included the personal intimacy of touching and kissing the book, reflecting the common liturgical practice of the “holy kiss” or “kiss of peace” that formed congregational bonds up to the time of the Reformation.

The enthronement of the gospel, metaphorically treating it as king-like, became prominent at the beginning of ecumenical councils as a way of establishing the legitimacy of the proceedings. The Justinian Code of 530 established that courtroom proceedings were only legal if Christian scripture had been placed next to the judicial seat. In spite of Jesus’s warnings against taken oaths, in this same period we find the beginning of oath-taking with one’s hand on the holy gospel. Recently in Britain, an effort within the Magistrates Association to acknowledge the country’s secular nature and end the practice of Bible oaths in the courtroom was rejected. Perhaps this is an indication of the inertial character of tradition; it is an open question whether one can improve the efficacy of testimony by swearing in witnesses on the Bible. The point, however, is that the iconicity of the book is found in its power (or the hope of its power) to mediate relationships between human actors and agents and the high ideals or divine presence that they seek to embody or make manifest. For John Chrysostom, hanging the Gospels by one’s bed warded off the devil and ensured a sound sleep. In the film The Apostle, the Bible figures prominently as an object of potency in American Evangelical culture; at one point the book, laid strategically on the ground, stops the driver of a bulldozer from demolishing a church. One way of defining magic is as the use of ritual and symbolic means to produce empirical effects. In this sense, magic has long been among the powers of the Bible.


One of the foundations of Martin Luther’s theology is sola scriptura, “scripture alone.” The emphasis placed by the Reformers on the centrality of the Bible had significant impact on ritual and art. Invoking the second commandment, various passages from the Prophets and Paul, and the early Christian martyr’s rejection of pagan statues and effigies, Reformers broadly repudiated sculpture, painting, and other arts; some went further to embrace iconoclasm, destroying works of art housed in churches, stripping liturgical vessels and objects from altars, and whitewashing art from church walls (Eire, 1989). With the criticism of indulgences and the practice and theology of penance under siege, the contents of countless relic chapels were either deliberately destroyed or lost to the ravages of time and indifference. Of some 20,000 items collected for Wittenberg’s relic chapel, only a single item has survived, a small beaker of cut glass produced in Egypt or Syria in the tenth or eleventh century, venerated for its association with St. Hedwig (Klein, 2010, p. 64).

On the basis of biblical interpretation, Luther and others emphasized the saving word of the gospel over what was perceived as the complexities of the Catholic sacramental system, so the preaching, reading, and hearing of God’s word became the central ritual action of the Protestant Reformation. Pulpits became increasingly large and ornate, a symbolic register of the importance of the Word. One of the unique features of Lutheran liturgical space is the combination of altar and pulpit as the focal point of a large, open worship area framed by a circle or semicircle of pews and, in larger churches, balconies. The altar, the physical location of Christ in the medieval church, was complemented, at times eclipsed, by the new emphasis on the pulpit and preaching of the word.

The leaders of the Reformation replaced the rich and complex visual, material, gestural, kinesthetic, and sensual dimensions of Catholic liturgy with a sensually sparse liturgy. Gone was the open nave, where congregants could move about; pews became a standard church furnishing. Gone was the feel of rose water on the fingertips, the smell of ecclesiastical incense and beeswax, and the use of candles. Icons were removed, as were the bodies and relics of saints. Gone were ornate vestments and the intricate gestures involved in elevating the Host and chalice. It was Luther’s view that congregants should “sit still, listen, and reflect.”

Luther was suspicious of painting and sculpture, though he recognized the visual arts could be put to didactic purposes. Though he abhorred the iconoclast’s destruction of liturgical objects, Luther was firm in the conviction that certain images inspired idolatry as well as promoted the false promises of salvation associated with the church’s theology of penance. Luther was an advocate of church music and congregational singing, and his praise of music certainly played a role in the development of liturgical music in Germany in the works of such luminaries as Bach and Handel, who gave body and sensuous form to Gospel narratives. Calvinist and Swiss Reform churches took a more stringent attitude toward the use of visual art and music. Ulrich Zwingli was a trained musician but advocated for a ban on music in churches. Ephesians, Zwingli noted, states that we should “make music in our hearts,” not in our churches (5:19). Spirituality was an interior act and disposition, not an outward, materially embodied event. John Calvin had a certain respect for the arts; like Luther and Zwingli, he was musically inclined and he approved and defended passion plays held in Geneva but believed the arts had no place in proper Christian worship. Puritan England witnessed violent episodes of iconoclasm in churches, and Puritan culture was generally suspicion of the arts. The effort to ban theaters had some measure of success through the 1640s; London’s Globe Theater was destroyed by the Puritans in 1644.

Ritual Art

Still Life with Bible (1885) by Vincent van Gogh.

Snark/Art Resource, N.Y.

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For the Reformers, the arts were potentially useful as a means of instruction in the formation of a morality citizenry, but they were not, in their view, conducive to true religion and piety, and ritual art, where it was retained at all, became largely didactic and ideological. Polemical pictures contrasting the old and new church and filled with text to make their meaning clear forced confessional and ideological messages on their viewers. Quite literally, biblical texts—the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, passages from the Gospels—became the focal point of artistic production, as altar panels and wall art in churches became “word infested,” outfitted with glosses and labels (Koerner, 2008, pp. 28–30).

As a result of the Reformation, “the great flowering of visual arts in northern Europe around 1500 ended in oblivion” (Koerner, 2008, p. 27). The Reformation quite literally sent painters packing with the closing of art schools. The same was true for actors, as theaters and the dramatic arts came under attack. Reformers suppressed the arts of dancing, masking, and puppetry; carnival, the exuberant popular art form of the high Middle Ages, was similarly rejected. In the wake of the Reformation, the market for ritual art and altarpieces sharply declined. The Bible was once the preeminent source for European art, but artists, pushed out of the church to take up home in the secular world, developed an interest in new, nonreligious themes: landscapes, domestic life, and portraiture. During the modern period, “the arts” emerge as a relatively autonomous domain, distinct from religion. To be sure, the Bible was still a source of artistic inspiration, but art was detaching from its ritual contexts to become religious art rather than specifically ritual art. Biblical scenes are the source for many of Rembrandt’s paintings, which he renders in intimate detail, but his art was largely a private affair. The same is true for Van Gogh, in whose works the imaged Bible is removed from its ritual setting to the household.

In the post-Reformation world, the importance of the Bible as a ritual object recedes in favor of its epistemological importance as the basis for finding and assessing right belief. The “Word,” once the source and justification for a spiritualizing of matter in a variety of media, was reduced to “text.” Through print technologies, the Bible became regularized and abstracted from the materiality of the hand-copied, crafted, and illustrated books and increasingly detached from its ritual context.



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Barry Stephenson

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